It’s funny how things turn out. David Cameron said in opposition that there was nothing worse than the Conservative party banging-on about Europe. These days, it bangs-on about little else. The prime minister is a repeat offender. He said on Friday that there should not be an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. It’s a different story today. In an article for the Sunday Telegraph, Cameron says that he is not afraid of the words Europe and referendum.
But don’t mistake that for a pledge. Cameron writes, ‘I don’t agree with those who say we should leave and therefore want the earliest possible in/out referendum. Leaving would not be in our country’s best interests.’ This analysis is underpinned by the belief that membership of the EU is intrinsically good for Britain. The purpose of Cameron’s article is to express his determination to offer Britons a ‘real choice’ by trying to make the European relationship work better for Britain.
William Hague was generous in his defence of Cameron’s equivocal position on the Andrew Marr Show earlier. He agreed with Cameron that membership of the European Union benefits Britain. ‘Britain sets the pace’ of foreign policy in Europe, he said, driving issues like Syria and Burma up the agenda. He argued that Cameron is building on previous statements about recalibrating Britain’s relationship with the EU, adding that the PM’s article illustrates ‘how the government’s thinking is developing’. That thinking, Hague said, will become clearer still during the autumn conference season, by which stage it will have become more obvious whether the EU has decided to meet the Eurozone crisis with greater integration. Hague said that a referendum would become likely in such an eventuality, especially if Britain was not granted concessions in return for its support.
The Tory party has not responded as one to these latest interventions. Liam Fox, who remains an important figure on the right even if he is journeying in the wilderness, has a piece in the Sunday Telegraph warning against an immediate in/out referendum – though, no prizes for guessing which outcome he favours. Meanwhile, Robert Halfon has been across the airwaves this morning, saying that he favours a referendum but not at a time of economic crisis. There is also the letter of 100 Tory MPs calling for a referendum to consider. These mixed responses suggest that the leadership is going to struggle to control the backbench debate; a process already complicated by the unpredictable bearing that the other 26 member states will have on it.